Conservative national political action committee supporting candidates in Baldwin City school board races; some residents wonder why
photo by: Submitted photo
The banner welcoming visitors to the Maple Leaf Festival — always the third full weekend in October — is already hung in downtown Baldwin City.
The aforementioned maple leaves in this town of about 4,800 people just south of Lawrence are doing their part too. They are beginning to change, right on cue, as thousands of visitors will pile into the small town for crafts and fall color.
For the locals, though, they are starting to keep their eyes on a different change that doesn’t hang from trees but is more likely to fill a mailbox or produce a lengthy thread on social media.
Baldwin City is getting a touch of political color this season — of the national variety, no less.
A national political action committee, based in New York, is spending money to impact the outcome of three local school board races in the Baldwin City school district. The 1776 Project — which opposes the teaching of critical race theory and has criticized a lack of patriotism in public education — sent a mailer to many voters in the USD 348 school district this week.
The group’s endorsement of three candidates and the dollars the PAC is pumping into the race have raised concern among some who are following the race, which has taken over local Facebook pages, creating back-and-forth debates among a group of more than 800 users, in some instances.
“We don’t want national politics in Baldwin,” said Mark Robson, a school district resident who isn’t formally affiliated with any of the candidates but has been a vociferous debate participant online. “We don’t need PACs for a small school district like this.”
The fact that the treasurer for the 1776 Project, Nancy Marks, pleaded guilty on Thursday to a federal fraud charge related to campaign finance violations involving her work for embattled U.S. Rep. George Santos of New York added to the angst.
Other Baldwin City residents, at least based on a random sampling of conversations with residents going about their business on Friday, were more perplexed than anything else. Several had remembered receiving the mailer recently, but they had not noticed the smaller print on the mailer, identifying that the mailer was paid for by the 1776 Project PAC. Once they noticed, they struggled to understand why the PAC would be investing in the Baldwin City race.
“Not a clue,” longtime Baldwin City business owner Sharon Vesecky said from her downtown quilt shop.
“Boy, I have no idea,” Mary Moore said while loading groceries into her car outside of the Baldwin City Market.
“I don’t know, I really don’t,” Ray Williams said while finishing a purchase at the local hardware store.
A little investigation shows there are likely two reasons why the PAC has entered the Baldwin City race. The first: It is what the PAC is built to do. Its website touts that it supports candidates in school board races across the country who agree with the organization’s goal to “reform our public education system by promoting patriotism and pride in American history,” and the elimination of “critical race theory” from public school curricula.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said his colleagues around the state have reported that the group has been active in other races in the state, particularly in nearby Johnson County. There, it is believed the PAC is spending tens of thousands of dollars to support some candidates, although the state’s campaign finance laws give the PAC more leeway in when it must publicly report its expenditures.
What is clear, Shew said, is that once-mundane school board races — board members receive no pay for their service — are changing.
“These races have gotten bigger than somebody putting up a few signs,” Shew said.
The second reason the 1776 Project has come to Baldwin City: One of the local candidates asked it to.
Ken Snyder, one of the three candidates the PAC has endorsed, told the Journal-World he reached out to the 1776 Project after learning about it and believing they shared “common ground.”
“I welcome their support,” Snyder said. “They are a very patriotic organization, and they really respect the founding principles of the nation. So, I think it is great that we can team up and I appreciate their support as a PAC.”
Whether rank-and-file Baldwin City voters appreciate the group’s involvement is likely an issue that will become clearer as the campaign moves toward its conclusion in November. The three candidates indeed have yard signs — the classic small-town display of support — in multiple spots in the community, as do their opponents. But they also are facing questions about why they’ve injected a new element into Baldwin City politics.
“It seems odd, and really and truly, the school board ought to be a local thing,” Vesecky said.
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
In addition to Snyder, candidates Michael Kennedy and Buck Bradley have received an endorsement from the 1776 Project. Snyder, Kennedy and Bradley often have campaigned as a group, and conducted a joint interview with the Journal-World on Friday.
They said there are good reasons to broaden Baldwin City’s school district elections. One of the biggest, they said, is because they had grown into one-sided affairs where contested races were few, and people who ran for the seats often were aligned with existing board members.
The result, they said, is a school board that isn’t transparent enough, especially on financial issues, and that too many people feel overtaxed but underrepresented. Often, though, they claim, those people aren’t getting engaged or don’t have the resources to do so.
“We would much rather have a local outpouring of donations to support getting our message out,” Kennedy said. “But with the dire straits the community is in with overtaxation and all the other economic problems, it makes it difficult to do that.”
The spending by the PAC helps the candidates get the word out in the local community in ways that otherwise would be difficult to accomplish, the group said. They noted the district has about 6,000 registered voters, which makes it difficult to get out and meet everyone personally.
Robson said he thinks voters ultimately will reject that idea.
“The idea that they have to bring in an outside PAC instead of just talking with their neighbors, that is the main issue with most people,” Robson said.
Snyder said he thinks many voters will appreciate that the three candidates are simply trying to “elevate the focus in the community of the school board.” Many times, a school district accounts for 40% of a homeowner’s property tax bill, the trio said. They also point to voters in the district rejecting a bond issue earlier this year for improvements to sports facilities and other capital projects as a sign that many voters agree the district has lost its way financially.
Plus, Kennedy said, the school board positions are critical in many other ways.
“The school board is one of the most important positions in the community,” Kennedy said. “It is teaching our kids how to think — in the sense of writing, reading, arithmetic — how to think, not what to think.”
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
A culture war
That last comment is likely a sentiment that resonates with the 1776 Project PAC. The group’s website leaves little doubt that the organization’s top issue is the elimination of critical race theory — an academic field that examines how society is shaped by past and current racism — from public schools.
Many groups, particularly on the conservative end of the political spectrum, have decried the teaching of critical race theory in schools as giving an inaccurate and overly harsh view of American history.
The issue has been a prominent one in many races nationally, up and down ballots. But despite that, the recent mailing from the 1776 Project doesn’t mention critical race theory. The three candidates are talking little about the subject, but some residents wonder whether it is the elephant in the room, given the 1776 Project’s involvement.
Bradley said he’s not trying to avoid the topic — he doesn’t think CRT should be part of the district’s curriculum — but he hasn’t had to talk about the issue much because he hasn’t seen many signs of the district teaching CRT.
“I don’t see that being a big issue in Baldwin at the moment,” Bradley said. “But I do believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
If only the issue were that simple, said Jamie Cox, who is a candidate for school board running against Kennedy in district No. 1. She said the issue of CRT is now hanging over the district in a way that it hadn’t previously.
“It is bringing a culture war to a small rural school district that’s never been there before,” Cox said.
But one of her bigger concerns is what happens next.
“It is pretty easy to say that if you have one political action committee that supports a certain curriculum come in during this school board cycle, then the next school board cycle you are going to see a completely opposite political action committee with a totally opposite curriculum come in to counteract that,” Cox said. “Then our kids are going to be in the middle of a culture war that they never asked to be a part of.”
The money questions
Thus far, this week’s mailer from the 1776 Project has been the biggest piece of artillery in this budding battle. How many more mailers are to come from the PAC is unknown. Campaign finance laws prohibit the candidates and the PAC from coordinating their efforts, so the candidates don’t know either.
The public also does not know how much the PAC has spent on the election thus far. The public won’t know that total until about two months after the election already has been completed. That’s due to the way Kansas law is structured, said Shew, the Douglas County clerk.
School board races are not covered by the state’s primary campaign finance laws, which do require candidates for the state Legislature, governor and even city commissions in large cities like Lawrence to file campaign finance reports prior to Election Day. School board candidates and PACs that support them aren’t required to file their donation and expense reports until Dec. 31, even though Election Day is on Nov. 7 this year.
Shew said there is nothing his office can do to compel a PAC in this instance to submit its donor and expense records prior to the election. He urged residents concerned about the law to talk to state lawmakers.
How much the PAC will spend in the Baldwin race is one money question, but another involves Marks, the federally indicted New Yorker who was listed as the 1776 Project’s treasurer on the Baldwin mailer.
Robson said her involvement in the 1776 Project adds to the stench the PAC is creating in Baldwin City.
“Why are they relying on sketchy, outside political operatives to attempt to defeat their next-door neighbors in a local election?” Robson said of the trio of candidates.
The three candidates, however, said they never worked with Marks and don’t believe she’s played any meaningful role in the Baldwin mailer. They said Baldwin residents who are bringing her into the debate are simply playing politics.
According to multiple media reports, Marks pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, while admitting to falsifying and inflating financial numbers and donor information pertaining to Santos’ campaign. In a plea agreement, prosecutors are recommending she serve about four years in prison.
Robson said having that person’s name showing up on campaign materials in Baldwin City isn’t a good look, no matter what size of role she has played.
“Why is she in our election at all?” he asked.
photo by: Submitted photo